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McDonnell channels Steinem brilliantly in ‘Gloria: A Life’ at McCarter Theatre


September 16, 2019

Article taken from The Trentonian.

Mary McDonnell needed almost no time to channel Gloria Steinem in “Gloria: A Life”, now playing at McCarter’s Berlind’s Theater in Princeton.

In fact, the first line of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” barely finished playing before McDonnell, a two-time Academy Award nominee, immersed into her role of Steinem.

In a 1 hour-50-minute remarkable tour de force laced with power, grit and messages of fearless unity for positive change, McDonnell captures and releases Steinem — an American feminist, journalist, and social political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader and a spokeswoman for the American feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s — until her doppelgänger theatrical performance delivers this assessment shared by audience witness Rosalie and most others.

“At some point you begin to think — that’s really her. That’s Gloria Steinem.”

Dressed in a black-top and mildly-flared bell bottoms dissected by a belt decked out with large silver medallions and her faced framed by large rose-colored glasses, “the bigger the better, just like hair,” McDonnell notes about retro-fashion, “Gloria: A Life” offers a joyride of female angst that plummets into depths of personal life struggles and rises with triumphs of self and sisterhood. Some insights, expressions and criticisms made audience members squirm although we know real change tethers the uncomfortable.

If theater fails to cause movement of bodies, minds or attitudes, fails to cause a shifting of buttocks, then performances produce wasted energy. McDonnell and an all-female cast of actors Gabrielle Beckford, Mierka Girten, Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers and Eunice Wong, confronts status quo and directs audiences toward a hopeful day when world-wide equality exists for all humanity.

Producer Emily Mann, who ends an accomplished career as director and playwright at McCarter following the 2019-2020 season, offered a perfect perch for Steinem reconnaissance with “Gloria:A Life” set in the middle of Berlind Theater which positions cast members in a theater-in-the round environment. Seating arrangements connect with the play’s message of circle, a key shape in Native American culture, one that underscores thecontinuous pattern of life and death, path of the sun and moon and disconnects from top-to-bottom pyramidic social schemes.

Mann produced a close-knit production melded even more inclusive as actors deliver some lines from positions near audience members, an expansion from their inner-circle setting — comparable to tossing a pebble into a body of water as ripples moved to the outer most edges of Berlind Theater.

During one monologue, Steinem stands three platforms up near rows CC , close enough to touch and see behind those “bigger the better” glasses for a deep gaze into her dark eyes that offer pathways to her soul. Gloria: A Life includes an introduction to or acknowledgment of African American feminist movement members including Paula Murray, Dorothy Height, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Margaret Sloan, Alice Walker, Barbara Smith and many others.

McDonnell as Steinem connects when she delivers “The truth is, I learned feminism from black women.” Kennedy once remarked, “You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun.”

Gloria: A Life includes a connect with Pearl Mankiller, a Cherokee activist, social worker and community developer influential in the evolution of Steinem’s life.

Steinem has enjoyed more than five decades as a social change catalyst. Absorb her history and more as Gloria: A Life plays through Oct. 6.